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Cleveland safety director accused of making racially biased statements; police union calls for his termination

“If we were to speak the way he did in a public forum we’d be looking at discipline or termination.”

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By John H. Tucker
cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland Safety Director Karrie Howard is under fire among the police rank-and-file for recent comments many are calling racially and culturally biased.

Earlier this week, Howard touted an all-Black psychological team his office uses to vet recruits, and he described American policing origins as Irish “to the point that we have bagpipes and kilts and all this green when we celebrate it.”

On Monday, the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, the union representing patrol officers and detectives, is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting for directors, followed by a no-confidence vote on Howard. The results of the anonymous vote will be announced Wednesday, the union’s president, Jeff Follmer, said.

Howard made the comments on Monday at a gathering at Word Church in Warrensville Heights, where Mayor Justin Bibb and Police Chief Wayne Drummond were invited to speak on a panel about policing in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death in Memphis.

Howard, who was not part of the panel but in the audience, was asked why Black people should consider law enforcement careers.

Howard said that after he became safety director, he analyzed the police division’s hiring process and dismissed the psychologist who ran behavioral assessments because “there was race included in the process.”

The city replaced him with an assessment team that includes “all local, all Black psychologists,” Howard said. Since then, racial diversity of applicants has increased, he added.

Howard later drew comparisons between members of today’s Black community and the Irish Americans who composed a large portion of U.S. law enforcement during its origins.

“Irish at the time were not considered white,” Howard told the crowd. “The Irish flooded the police departments. The Irish flooded fire departments. The Irish flooded safety forces, to the point that where we have bagpipes and kilts and all this green when we celebrate it.”

Moments later, however, Howard seemed to mix the message when he said, “Racism is in the DNA of America. So there is a certain type of person who has historically applied to be police officers, and we’re not part of that certain type of person.”

The comments drew fast blowback, with accusations of bias.

In a lengthy statement released by Bibb’s office, Howard apologized for the remarks, saying he was expressing his admiration for Irish police officers who joined the ranks while simultaneously seeking to reform them.

“I have served alongside members of nearly every faith, nationality, ethnicity and sexual orientation,” Howard’s statement said in part. “I hold a deep respect for every single individual who answers the call to keep our city and our country safe.”

The police union responded by rejecting Howard’s apology and called for his termination.

“It’s time for a change,” Follmer said. “If we were to speak the way he did in public forum we’d be looking at discipline or termination.”

A Bibb spokesperson declined to comment on the union’s upcoming no-confidence vote.

In his role as safety director, Howard holds tremendous power to discipline officers accused of misconduct, including bias. The most severe disciplinary cases are automatically presented to him, rather than Drummond, the chief.

Cpt. James O’Malley is the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8, which represents Cleveland’s higher-ranking officers. He said Howard called him to personally apologize following his comments, “which I appreciated.”

But underscoring the disciplinary authority Howard wields, O’Malley said Howard’s remarks this week present a conflict of interest.

“Imagine a police officer says something derogatory against the Muslim or Jewish community,” O’Malley said. “They could be sitting in front of the director for discipline, but they don’t have the opportunity to apologize and hope it goes away. What’s said is said.”

O’Malley is the son of a former Cleveland police lieutenant whose familial ties with police date to 1875. In addition to the complaints he has received from union members, O’Malley, a member of the city’s Irish community, has been “bombarded by civilians appalled by the statements as well,” he said.

Police processions with kilts and bagpipes originated as a ritual to mourn officers who died in the line of duty, said O’Malley, who described those origins as the chief reason union members were upset by Howard’s comments.

Many officers became irate after hearing Howard’s remarks. “The Irish stuff drives me crazy, but the outright racism is the important part,” said a police source. “We have a bias-free hiring system through the [federal consent decree] that is not being followed.”

During his comments, Howard also celebrated an increase in applicants who reside in Cleveland, rather than the suburbs, which he seemed to use as a selling point.

“If you don’t apply to become a Cleveland police officer, someone in Brecksville or Parma or Parma Heights or Painesville is going to come and try to be a police officer in this city, and they don’t understand Cleveland,” he said. “Cleveland is unique.”

Follmer countered, “We’re looking for numbers in blue. It shouldn’t matter whether they come from the suburbs or the city.”

Follmer said he expects 85% to 100% of his members to voice no confidence in Howard in next week’s vote, based on the complaints he has received.

The results will have no formal influence on Howard’s position with the city. But Follmer said the vote will send a sobering message to Bibb.

“The mayor needs to know his safety forces are not happy right now,” he said.

Though he stopped short of demanding Howard’s termination, O’Malley called on the mayor to “take action.”

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